Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Everything is gray. So THERE!

A little while back I tried to make the act of being 100% sure of something sound very extreme. It sounds pretty banal to actually come out and say it like that, but it seems to come up all the time (I don't feel like thinking of examples, you know what I mean) and that's where relativists go wrong. The lack of certainty is taken to mean that we can't say much about anything, or to take science down a notch, or whatever.

The funny thing is that relativists often present themselves as a sophisticated foil to people who see the world in black and white, which is too simplistic. Black and white is too simplistic, but replacing it with the same gray is twice as simplistic!

The idea of having higher or lower probabilities of being right is really obvious, but it seems weirdly easy to lose sight of. The other day I was talking about the difference between being bi-polar with or without appropriate medication. My claim is that usually life is better with medication in some sense that most people agree on. The standard response is something along the line of there being side effects and it not being sustainable or the proper solution being spiritual or something. I find this frustrating because the claim isn't that the medication makes things perfect, just that they're better. Even if the only improvement is to reduce the odds of the sufferer attempting suicide.

One of the themes of my recent blogging has been that we should be less sure of most of our beliefs. Sometimes it can be a little dispiriting, or unreasonable, but so long as we can sometimes tell better from worse that's all we really need. The space of true beliefs is Really Big (but Really Small compared to the space of false beliefs), once a belief becomes sufficiently likely to be true, it just sits in the background and doesn't occupy our minds much. Most people don't much care that the earth goes round the sun. That's a cliched example but many of our beliefs are of that sort. There will always be tougher problems on the horizon, people will argue about them and maybe one day they'll have the same status as the earth round the sun, till then we shouldn't act "sure", but there must a transition from there being a low chance of having a good answer and having a high chance.

That transition is what I think is important. I also think that if "society's" beliefs become even slightly more likely to be true, it can have a dramatic impact.


TGGP said...

You should read Eliezer Yudkowsky. Oddly enough, that post does not link to this one, but it should.

TGGP said...

I can't believe I forgot to link to The Fallacy of Gray!

stuart said...

thanks tggp. I'm a regular reader over at overcoming bias. I should have at least linked to the fallacy of gray, though I missed Infinite Certainty, thanks.

If you look at my most recent post, I obviously lack independant thought, some of the examples I use are lifted straight from him.